California Literary Review

Oh, Those Crazy Modern Victorians: Or What the Heck Is Steampunk?

by

May 29th, 2013 at 9:18 am

  • Print Print

sp_GirlWithGoggles-SM-0403

Amber Johnson rockin’ the goggles made for her by Ian N. Campbell. Steampunk World’s Fair 2013.

Whether or not you are familiar with the term Steampunk, you have encountered its influence in popular entertainment and fashion.

For the record, the term Steampunk refers to a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy literature in which Victorian aesthetics combine with futuristic technology to create a world full of brass, mechanical gears, goggles, clocks, and steam-powered machinery.

Though there exist Victorian fantasy novels written by the greats — H. G. Wells and Jules Verne — the actual term Steampunk is relatively recent. Coined by writer K. W. Jeter in a light-hearted 1987 comment to Locus magazine, the letter read:

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for [Timothy] Powers, [James P.] Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.

It took a while, but it seems that this prediction may actually come to pass.

[Full disclosure time: As you might have guessed by the similarity in our names, I am related in some way to K. W. Jeter. He is, in fact, my husband. And, of course, I am inordinately proud of him. However, although I never review his books because of the obvious conflict, it would be remiss of me to exclude him from this article.]

Recently, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with other national publications, have featured Steampunk topics relating to fashion and Victorian martial arts. Additionally, IBM has predicted that Steampunk will be one of the biggest trends in 2013 to 2015.

Possibly. There are signs. Apart from its literary influences, Steampunk has begun to impact current fashion. Sarah Burton’s new spring collection for Alexander McQueen, for example, references Victorian fashion with her emphasis on corsetry, full-skirted gowns, and specialty millinery. In Paris, John Galliano’s 2010 collection at Christian Dior featured lace, corsets, and top hats. Most significant is Pantone’s announcement that brown (a color much beloved by the Steampunk fashionistas) is one of the top colors for fall 2013.

The entertainment industry also is giving a nod to the genre. Television shows like Sanctuary and Warehouse 13, and the wildly popular Dr. Who, lean heavily on the Victorian “look.” Beyond the cable shows, even the networks are getting into the act. For example, the show Castle highlighted the subculture in its 2010 episode “Punked.” Also, films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire are Victorian in design and period.

The Conventions

As is usual with parts and portions within the science fiction and fantasy community, aficionados of a particular enthusiasm gather together to celebrate their passions. Star Trek conventions, the big San Diego ComicCon and its various offshoots, and the more general World Science Fiction and World Fantasy conventions, along with the general regional conventions, attract thousands of people every year.

As one of the newest entries on the specialty conference scene, the various Steampunk conventions are a combination of topic-relevant panels, music, art, crafts and other demonstrations, Victorian-themed teas and absinthe tastings, and, of course, the costumes.

After attending two of the most prominent Steampunk conventions — Steamcon in Seattle, held in the fall, and the Steampunk World’s Fair, held in New Jersey each spring — I have to say that this is some of the most inventive costuming I have encountered in years. Plus, the craftsmanship is at an incredibly high level. These are not tatty Halloween costumes off the rack. They are often wearer-made, or at the least, handmade by people working within a narrow area of expertise. Beautiful hats by true milliners, scientific instrument and faux weapon accessories, and fantastic jewelry and leatherwork create an ongoing visual feast.

sp_BW Hat-0390

Madame Pâte à Glacer models her new hat.

All Are Welcome

Another thing I have noticed is that this is an all-ages, all-comers enthusiasm. From babies in decked-out prams to older people sporting canes or wheelchairs studded with gears, clock mechanisms, and brass, this is a party that includes everyone. While I readily understand the older generations’ affinity for the event, and we all know that babies exist for the wearing of funny hats, I am intrigued by the number of teens and preteens in attendance at these events.

So I asked. One young woman, Mirabelle von Hedwig (aka Ronan York) who is an active member of the group The Steampunk Family said:

Younger people enjoy Steampunk because it is a way to be amazing. They can learn how to make and do cool things and be recognized for them. Imagine a group of tiny threads, thousands of them, constantly weaving together and unraveling, then repeating the process. Now label it. Its name is Steampunk, a place where there is always room for a new thread.

Steampunk is a live culture, constantly changing and evolving, Because of this, no one is “bigger, better, or more experienced.” You can have been Steampunk for years, as I have (I first went to a convention as Steampunk five years ago when I was seven years old) and still not know its full mystery. I know I don’t!

Additionally, as ‘children,’ we often are grouped together as one unit, but in Steampunk we are amazing individuals.

In addition, attendees have begun to realize that the Victorian Era touched many cultures. This was the time in history that the sun never set on the British Empire, and many countries were influenced by the arts and sciences of the period. Therefore, Steampunk has attracted many people of color and myriad ethnicities who have become an integral part of the Steampunk community.

sp_AsianSteampunk-0406

For costuming, it’s all in the details.

The women, of course, look lovely in all the pretty dresses and intrepid female explorer outfits. But a big plus for the Steampunk enthusiasts — the men look terrific in this stuff! Especially the tall and portly men. Victorian menswear and its various permutations very much suit the guys.

sp_ManWithClockHat-0349

Professor Verdigris Wetware takes tea. (Notice the clock detailing on the hat.)

The Future

This success, however, has highlighted some possible problems. What has been a predominately small, out-of-the-mainstream enthusiasm is catching the attention of big media. While there is a sense of pride in having created something so wonderful, there is also a fear that it all might be tarnished or even taken away by the corporate entities that run the film industry, television networks, and fashion.

We’ll see. My bet is that the true essence of Steampunk will escape the corporations. They will play with it for a while, move on to the next new thing, and then Steampunk will go back to those who truly love the genre.

And what does K. W. Jeter think of what has happened to “his” word?

Here’s the deal: I didn’t invent Steampunk. I did, however, bumble into coining the word “Steampunk.” There’s a lot of creativity, written and others, and just general fun that’s going on in regard to Victorian-themed fantasy and science fiction, and if a word I created has become attached as the portmanteau handle to all that, then I’m flattered. But it would still be going on, with or without that label. — K. W. Jeter

[For a representative gallery of Steampunk looks, go to the Flickr pages for The Steampunk Family.]

  • gondor_lady

    Mrs. Jeter, please thank your husband for coining the phrase “steampunk” even though he doesn’t see it as something special. Those of us who enjoy the genre and in many cases live it, are forever indebted to him. I have been a costumer my whole adult life and enjoy the steampunk community so much more than other groups simply because they do accept everyone. From the newbie who can’t seem to decide on any direction for their character, to the most experienced “makers” and costumers out there…everyone is welcome. You are right also in saying when studios and movie producers try to tackle the genre, they have only recently been getting it right. Finally they realize they need people who actually live the lifestyle to work for them, so they are hiring the “Makers” and costumers to work for the productions so they CAN get it right. This is good for the makers and good for the audience. There’s nothing worse than a studio trying to do something within a genre and doing it badly. But, at least they are paying better attention now. Myself, I’ve always felt more comfortable in my corsets than jeans so I guess I am grateful to the Suffragettes for their hard work early in the last century. I wear corsets with pride instead of necessity! I also have a lady flyer uniform I wear which always goes over well. As for the writers worth reading definitely Wells and Vern, I can’t count how many times I’ve suggested to people to pick up a copy of anything they had written. I believe an educated person is a happier person. Those folks always tell me later they were glad they did.

    You mentioned the steampunk conventions…well we have one here every year in San Diego called The Gaslight Gathering, we just had it over the first weekend of May but you and your husband should check us out on-line for the future, I’m sure we’d love to have you come!!!
    Best regards,

    Sandra Deakins
    Charity Coordinator, The Gaslight Gathering 2011-2013

  • Geri J.

    Sandra — I will certainly let him know. Writers are often isolated so it is wonderful when fans write to them or stop and say hello at a convention.

    The Gaslight Gathering sounds like fun. I went to school in Carlsbad and K. W.’s family lived in Vista for a number of years. So we do like the area. Travel is a little more complicated for us right now, though, as we live in Ecuador. It’s always a possibility, though.

Get The Latest California Literary Review Updates Delivered Free To Your Inbox!

Powered by FeedBlitz

Recent Comments